“Leader-proof” your transformation efforts: Becoming agile

Posted by
Noah Rabinowitz
on December 12, 2017.

This series has been exploring the role of leaders in achieving business transformation. The first post, “Mind the gap,” looked at ways to determine if the leaders you have in place are the right ones to lead transformation. Last time, “Build or buy transformation leaders” looked at why building from within is typically the better choice. Today, I want to dive deeper into strategies for building a bench of transformational leaders. If you are going to leverage the 4E’s of leadership development (Experience, Exposure, Education, Environment),1 how can you do so in an innovative way? By borrowing from the agile methodology used in other types of development.

The software and product development world has seen a big move toward agile design, where you develop faster by designing the components, testing the market response, and then building the next component. When the agile movement was first launched in the technology sector during the early ’90s, there was often a three-year lag between the identification of a specific problem and the development of an application to address it. This was because software developers at the time were using methodology that required each successive step to be complete before moving to the next phase. While this helped provide structure to the design process, it often locked in design decisions while the world changed around them.2

Individual development programs (or individual development plans, IDPs) face a similar challenge. Many are treated as both fragile and inflexible, with months going into the design of a process that may become irrelevant shortly after it’s launched.

For example, a program designed to run over two years and teach a greater emphasis on internal “clients” may be really impactful for the first year. However, at the beginning of year two, when a CEO transition occurs and the new leader wants to refocus the organization on external clients, the material may suddenly feel outdated and irrelevant.

Working to find “perfect” solutions before they are distributed to employees may no longer be possible due to the rapid pace of change and the need to innovate quickly. This is where agile methodology can really accelerate the pace of talent development. Making adjustments to development programs in real time, while more labor intensive, can help each cohort feel he or she is getting content that is pulled directly from current strategy and critical challenges. This iterative process presents a way of building programs faster and incorporating more real-time feedback, producing a solution that is both current and “road tested” for future users.

Escaping the tyranny of perfection
It’s also worth noting that no program, even one that has been through multiple pilots, is ever truly perfect. Its impact will change depending on the audience going through it, the changing environment inside and outside the organization, and reactions from early cohort members.

Of course, this can be unsettling for leadership practitioners who want a program totally right before they launch it. But what’s the use of a polished and comprehensive program that sounds good when described in internal communications, but may have a limited effect in practice? While flexible programs may never be perfect, neither is the world these employees work in, and there can be potential advantages to constantly adapting and updating the program in real time: relevance, timeliness, “learning at the point of need,” and stronger participant buy-in, to name a few.

Agility drives progress
As software design has advanced, its language has changed in a noteworthy way. Many designers have gone from creating “programs” (suggesting rigidity and clear structure) to developing “applications” (with a clear focus on where the tool will be actively used). In the same way, program designers and HR teams should become less focused on building isolated classroom experiences and begin to design applicable programs that will help address current challenges. In doing so, programs should no longer feel like they take time away from working on “real” problems and critical priorities. Instead, participants can bring their latest challenges and needs to the discussion with an increased level of support and increased chances for reflection and iteration, leading to quicker, more meaningful learning gains.

Noah Rabinowitz is a managing director in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Leadership practice, helping clients solve their most important challenges through people development, learning, and leadership.

1 Jeffrey A. Krames, Jack Welch and the 4E’s of Leadership: How to Put GE’s Leadership Formula to Work in Your Organization, McGraw-Hill, 2005.

2 Peter Varhol, “To agility and beyond: The history—and legacy—of agile development,” TechBeacon. https://techbeacon.com/agility-beyond-history%E2%80%94-legacy%E2%80%94-agile-development

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